Draft top 5: Inside Linebackers

Depending on the scheme a team plays, the traits clubs look for in an inside linebacker differ. Generally speaking, inside linebackers in a 3-4 front are a little bigger and have a bit less range than a Mike linebacker in a 4-3. Still, there are some players who transcend scheme and can play anywhere. Players like that are usually rated higher because they are universal. That said, the following are my top inside/mike linebackers for this draft.

1) C.J. Mosley – Alabama

One of the best things you can say about Mosley is that he can play a number of positions. He was an inside linebacker for Alabama in a 3-4 front, but he can also play all three linebacker positions in a 4-3.
He has good size at 6023 – 234, and he has the frame to play at 240. He didn’t work out at combine but ran 4.61 at his pro day.

Mosley is highly instinctive, tough, and aggressive. He can play the run, drop into coverage, or rush the passer. He has the athleticism to play man coverage on backs and tight ends. This gives defenses a lot of flexibility. Throughout his career. He was always one of Alabama’s leading tacklers.

His talent says he should be the first inside linebacker drafted, but he has had numerous injury problems while at Alabama (elbow, hip, shoulder). How clubs medical staffs rate him could have an effect on where he gets drafted. On draft day, if he starts to fall, it will be because of durability concerns.

2) Chris Borland – Wisconsin

Borland doesn’t have preferred height, speed, and arm length, but he is all football player. He is an instinctive, relentless player, who is a consistent play maker.

Borland stands 5110 – 248 and runs a 4.82, but he is quick with very good body control and change of direction. He plays faster than he times because of his excellent anticipation. He reads and reacts very quickly and is consistently around the ball. He is an efficient tackler but will miss some because of his shorter arms.

In coverage, he can drop and close and shows very good receiver awareness. He is seldom out of position. He is used some to blitz and is productive when used because of his excellent timing.

While the 2014 Draft is considered strong, the inside linebacker class is weak. Because of this, Borland could go as high as the second round even though his measurables suggest otherwise.

3) Lamin Barrow – LSU

Barrow is an interesting prospect. He has good size (6016 – 237) with the frame to get a little bigger. He runs very well (4.64) and was one of the best testing linebackers at the combine. He has excellent explosion (35’’ – VJ, 10’3" – LJ) and moves well in tight quarters.

Linebackers have to be instinctive, and Barrow has top instincts. He has a knack for being around the ball and has excellent reactions. He has an impressive 195 tackles over the last two years. With his athleticism, he can play in coverage and matches up well against tight ends and running backs. He is also an effective pass rusher when used in that capacity.

Overall, like Mosley, Barrow can play in any scheme. In a 4-3, he can line up at Mike, Will, or Sam and in a 3-4, he can be the weak side inside linebacker. I have him graded as a third to fourth round player, but with the lack of many top inside ‘backers, he could go in the bottom of the second.

4) Max Bullough – Michigan State

Bullough has had a roller coaster ride the last year. He went from a projected premium round guy to a late rounder because of weight issues and a suspension. With a strong spring, he has moved back up near the premium area.

On 2012 tape, Bullough was a very impressive player. He was the leader of a strong Michigan State defense. He made all the defensive calls and was a top play maker. He played with speed and instincts and was consistently around the ball. On top of that, he is a very physical player who can shed and tackle.

In 2013, his play dropped off. He was noticeably heavier and slower. While he still made plays, he didn’t make the same plays he was making in 2012. At the East–West game he showed up at close to 270 and looked sluggish.

By the combine, he got his weight down to 249 and ran a 4.79. At his pro day, he ran even better (4.71) as well as running a 7.07 three-cone which is excellent for a big guy. 

There is no question that Bullough has the physical tools to be a good starting linebacker in the NFL. Why he was suspended needed to be addressed, and I’m sure it was with team scouts and coaches. Come draft day, I feel Max could get drafted as high as the third round. His best fit is in a 3-4, but he can be a Mike in a 4-3.

5) Shane Skov – Stanford

When I watched tape of Skov from 2013, I saw an instinctive, playmaking, physical linebacker. He showed the ability to stack and shed at the line of scrimmage and had excellent lateral quickness to make plays versus the outside run. Skov plays the game the way you want a linebacker to play.

At 6020 – 245, he has excellent size and plays with strength. He didn’t work out at the combine because of injury, nor did he workout at the Stanford pro day. Earlier this week, he reportedly ran in the 5.1 range for scouts. With that speed, his value drops big time!

This whole situation reminds me of a player in the 2010 draft. Brandon Spikes was a top ILB at Florida. He made plays all over the field. He played like a 4.65 player because of his great instincts but when it came to timing him, he couldn’t break 5.1. Spikes got drafted in the second round. Skov is similar. He plays fast and makes plays but can’t run for the stop watch. This will hurt where he gets drafted, but like Spikes, he will be a good NFL player. 

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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